The wind that shreds the nerves
A region 2 DVD review of THE INNOCENTS by Camus
 
"It was only the wind, my dear..."
The boy Miles (Martin Stephens) calming
the overwrought governess (Deborah Kerr).

 

And what if it really was 'only the wind...'?

The implications of believing that take us down some very dark and corrupting places in interpreting the gloriously creepy and densely layered The Innocents. What if Deborah Kerr's prim, starched, goody-goody Miss Giddens is one of the most monstrous creatures unleashed in cinema but no one told her? She makes the all too human error of believing herself to be absolutely right at the expense of those in her care. You could see this is a fundamental problem wired into overtly religious people. Producer/director Jack Clayton has delivered a film with one aspect that no one in Hollywood would sanction today. It drips with cloying but delicious ambiguity. And it's that trait that elevates Henry James' original novella (and the stage play source material) into a bona fide classic movie and this BFI presentation has done it proud. For the sake of debate, I'm going to regard The Innocents as a movie about mental illness, about the influence of God, about the harm misguided morals can wreak and let's not forget simple childlike wickedness. Yes, there are ghosts – and hugely effective ghosts – but are they, in the context of the film, 'real'? Oh, you'll have some fun with this one if it doesn't scare the bejesus out of you first. The beauty of Clayton's smart take on The Turn of the Screw is the fact you can take it any way you like...

How do you instantly know if a psychological horror film is going to be as good as its 45-year-old reputation? It's when the actual DVD menu scares you, that's how. I have loved this film ever since it seeped into me like black poison many years ago as every good twisted horror film should. If I need any more testaments to its stark power then today's viewing did nicely. It was light when I started and pitch dark when I finished – and being (as I am) as old as the film (both of us were distributed in 1961) you'd think I'd have a bit more reason and common sense to draw upon but no. Miss Giddens is asked at the start of the film "Do you have an imagination?" Mine runs rampant after brilliantly executed chillers. I experienced actual fear climbing from my dark cellar to the security of a lit home above. And it strikes me as even more ludicrous that it was the face of who was to become Jason King that was unnerving me. The only thing scary about Jason King was the audacity of his facial hair. But not in Jack Clayton's The Innocents. Oh no. He made Peter Wyngarde a demon. Here was a movie that dared to be utterly ambivalent and it's another nod to its power that thirty years ago, I believed its ghosts were real and that the governess was trying to save the children. Today I'd bet that the apparitions are not only all in the governess's head but that her character has gone some way down the road of the blackest of evil – those that staunchly believe they are doing God's will.

Cinema. Is there nothing it cannot do?

It's the mid 1800s. Deborah Kerr (on superlative form as the repressed governess) is employed to be the sole guardian of a niece and nephew of a social hedonist, a man who wants nothing to do with the children in his official care. She is somewhat taken by him, enough that she commits to what appears to be a dream job; swan about in enormous dresses at a country mansion, teach a boy and girl the rudiments of reading and writing and leave the cleaning and cooking to the other staff – perfect. Except that you harbour a strengthening belief that the children are actually possessed by the malevolent spirits of a violent, sexually aggressive footman and his former governess lover, long since deceased... OK. So far, so Freudianly freaky.

The movie has the most startling opening. A children's voice sings a mournful lament as the 20th Century Fox logo gives up its authorial fanfare. We mix to a black screen and crawling into frame, we see hands in prayer finally revealing Deborah Kerr mourning over what must have been a terrible event. She seems either possessed, receiving some spiritual presence or in the throes of buttoned down sexual ecstasy. It is an amazing performance and the way the scene is lit gives this primly beautiful woman, black eyes – not violence induced shiners but actual black eyes, like a shark's. This simple opening reveals what must be a devastating ending waiting for us. It's an ending that even film-makers today would shy away from. You just can't see Miles' and Flora's haunting faces on a Happy Meal box – thank Christ.

Freddie Francis' rich, oil-black, snow-white cinematography has been justly lauded. If the film were sharper, the clapper-loader would be fingerless. The camera movements, subtle and eerily invisible, are nevertheless notable. This was a double blimped Mitchell 35mm camera we are talking about here. Think of an anvil with a lens on it. To get this richness and sharpness correctly exposed, and depth of field successfully elongated, Francis used scores of brutes, huge lamps that would have made acting more than a little uncomfortable. Apparently Kerr turned up one day with sunglasses on. But it was worth it. The film sparkles in every sense except negative dust (motes of which produce sparkles of white where the negative was not exposed – technical snippet ends here).

Metaphor is one of cinema's richest seams. To support a thesis of Miss Giddens being a malign and deadly influence on the children, I draw your attention to one of the first things she does upon arriving at the house. She is naturally drawn to a vase of beautiful flowers. As soon as she touches them, their petals fall. It's a distinct throw away but as a portent (the children's lives can only get worse once Miss Giddens gets her hands on them) it's as neat an idea as it should be. Her real undoing is making judgements and assuming their veracity and then balancing another stillborn judgement on top. Soon she has a tower of unreason that would make Richard Dawkins bark. Miss Giddens was raised in a small house and her father was a vicar. She reads the Bible when the children are asleep and is prone to shocking and vivid hallucinations. And these hallucinations are as chilling as anything a computer generated image can throw at us.

The previous governess and her sexually aggressive footman appear to Miss Giddens at various points in the narrative. We see through the governess' eyes because we see her reaction to an apparition before we see what she's seeing. Inexplicably, one of the most effective is the decidedly non showy 'ghost governess' who swishes noiselessly by in an upstairs corridor. Why is such a fleeting image of a young lady so masterfully creepy? I would guess it's all down to mood setting and by that time in the narrative, a shot of a packet of crisps would have sent me crawling up the curtains – if I had any curtains. There is only a single tear or droplet of water as any sort of physical evidence of the ghosts (a mistake that screenwriter Truman Capote made and latterly felt 'let the show down'). It's enough to plough Miss Giddens' mindset into a terrible trough of inevitability.

The sound effects are also noteworthy. The natural sounds of the house's garden are amplified so that bird song becomes unsettling, harsh and strident. The odd sounds the house itself makes as Miss Giddens floats through black corridors with only candles to guide her are genuinely chilling. Floorboards creak, doors squeal shut and the voices... If there was anything approaching a criticism it would be the over-use of a very familiar echo effect. Of course, 45 years ago that was probably cinema's audio equivalent of full CG motion capture. It's really the only aspect that dates the movie, a film-maker overusing a new toy. (Note: Frayling covers this point on the commentary almost exactly as I originally wrote the previous sentence, blast those overlapping Extras!)

So Miss Giddens has now decided what the trouble is, never once questioning her method of arriving at such a terribly misguided conclusion. Her plan is to expose the children to her own terrible neurosis (or the ghosts) in order to cure them. Yes, let's paint the children a little darker – they are both kids who seem distracted (in shock more like at being present while death presented itself years earlier). The boy Miles is sent home, expelled from school for being a malign influence on his classmates but we never really find out why. He is overly polite and in one stunning scene shot in glorious close up, he kisses Miss Giddens goodnight – but it's on the lips and Deborah Kerr is exemplary here. Here is seriously brilliant and outstanding acting – just watch that face. She is confused, aroused even and in her eyes there is a terror of what she must recognise is inside her. But she doesn't. It's all loaded on to the children and the corrupting spirits of the footman and his lover inside them. The kiss happens again but it would be unfair for me to reveal the circumstances but it's a real shock...

The Innocents is a cracking supernatural chiller with a shocking ending that leaves you genuinely unnerved. It is also one of the greatest ghost stories ever shot.

sound and vision

Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, the print from which this DVD was struck is in pristine condition. I would need several viewings and a large magnifying glass to find even a single scratch. The stunning black and white palette of Freddie Francis is shown off as well as the DVD format can. Of course, it belongs on a massive screen but all power to whomever found this stunning print. The 1961 mono soundtrack, rendered in Dolby 2.0, shows its age only stylistically. There is only noticeable hiss if you crank the sound up – not necessary to thoroughly enjoy the movie.

extra features

What can I say? Two words that set this DVD up as a real classic; 'Christopher' and 'Frayling'. His informed coverage and encyclopaedic knowledge of not only the film but the context in which the film was made is bursting with fascination. You never get the sense he's showing off or just exercising a great intellect. He's communicating and he's doing it superbly. Trivia buffs note I am writing this on Frayling's 61st birthday, Christmas Day, 2006. Happy Birthday, Christopher.

Oh, frustration! I chose the quote for the start of the review and now listening to Frayling's commentary, he takes the line out for praise... Another example of the Extras gazumping the reviewer after the event...

Commentary with Professor Christopher Frayling
See above, a superb commentary and one other commentators would be wise to study. It's revealing, highly knowledgeable and extremely listenable. I would have been happy with simply taking away the fact that Clayton turned down Cary Grant as the uncle but the commentary is full of such gems. He unveils the extraordinary multivalency of the movie (great word Mr. Frayling introduced me to, meaning susceptible to many different interpretations) and you come to the conclusion that the thought, artistry and intellectual vigor poured into this film is considerably more than you got after several viewings. I've now seen it about six or seven times and Frayling introduced me to ideas that were wonderfully illuminating and original.

Introduction by Christopher Frayling
Terrific location-based introduction to The Innocents and featuring Professor Frayling at the original locations, a theme not lost here at Outsider (see Withnail Extras and Went The Day Well? review).

Original trailer
This is rather less ambiguous – she's the only one who can save the children! Oh no she isn't! "Do they ever return to possess the living? Mwah ha ha!" It's a US Trailer so seems to be a little over the top. Actually it's a great deal over the top.

The Bespoke Overcoat (1955, 33 mins)
Jack Clayton's first film as director – an Oscar and BAFTA award-winning short starring Alfie Bass and David Kossoff and it's quite bizarre! In short, a man returns from the grave to steal an overcoat from his ex-employer with help from his tailor. It feels like a Samuel Beckett discourse and is acted very well but the style is so odd. Worth a look, no question – but very odd.

Image Gallery
Stills gallery including original costume designs, publicity posters, press books and production pictures. This is of interest to true fans of The Innocents, including stills from the originally shot opening (Miles' funeral which would have literally turned the movie around and forced it into a straight line, not good).

Booklet including film notes by Jeremy Dyson (the less visible of the writers of The League of Gentlemen)
This is one of the very few 'booklets' that can be celebrated as a true extra. The DVD is beautifully presented in a well designed cover and hard card jacket (both oddly missing the words 'A Film By' which gives the odd impression that Jack Clayton is the lead actor in the film). The actual booklet has several positive points.

    1. "Fog and rain and long winter nights..." Jeremy Dyson's 3 page essay on the movie;
    2. 3 storyboards by John Piper;
    3. 5 page article by Penelope Houston written for Sight and Sound in 1961';
    4. Cast and Credits including proper biographies of the major players and a page of the original screenplay which is fascinating (with all the continuity notes scribbled all over it);
    5. A page on the short, The Bespoke Overcoat.
summary

Buy it. No, really. Buy it. If you know the film, you won't find a better quality DVD of it and if you don't know the film and enjoy classy horror, then get this disc, open a bottle, wait for nightfall and get ready to have your blood chilled... But then, it's was only the wind, my dear...

The Innocents

UK 1961
96 mins
director
Jack Clayton
starring
Deborah Kerr
Peter Wyngarde
Megs Jenkins
Michael Redgrave
Martin Stephens
Pamela Franklin
Clytie Jessop

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Commentary by Christpher Frayling
Introduction by Christopher Frayling
The Bespoke Overcoat short film
Trailer
Image gallery
Booklet
distributor
BFI
release date
11 December 2006
review posted
26 December 2006

Related review
The Innocents (Blu-Ray review)